Roller coasters, rides and religion Great Adventure hosts Muslims of all sects, nationalities.

Posted: September 17, 2005

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — If an amusement park roller coaster stops running in the middle of the day, usually it is a sign of trouble. But yesterday, as thousands of Muslim families congregated at Six Flags Great Adventure theme park here, that was far from true.

Instead, it was time for prayer.

The Kingda Ka mega roller coaster and the Moon Flume water ride were halted while men, women and children knelt facing Mecca during the Jummah Khutbah, the first of four prayers held in the theme park during the Great Muslim Adventure Day.

While a few non-Muslims visited on their own yesterday, the park catered to Muslims of all nationalities and sects from throughout the Northeast as they enjoyed a day of family fun, charity and prayer.

"It's cool to see Muslims together, enjoying themselves," said Sarah Khalifa, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., who has attended the event for the last two years. "And it's a lot of fun."

First held in September 2000, the event started as a group trip sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America - New Jersey, a Piscataway-based branch of the national organization that provides religious education and social services to families.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the event was interrupted. One of its chief organizers, Tariq Amanullah, who worked on the 96th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center, was among those killed. The event is held in his memory.

After taking two years to mourn and regroup, organizers wanted to make the event specially tailored for Muslim families. In its first years, it was held during the park's normal operating hours. But two years ago, the group took a shot at renting the entire park for Muslim families in an effort to attract those who might otherwise stay away. Attendance increased. Last year, 15,000 people attended, organizers said, and they said this year's crowd was approaching that number yesterday.

"Some people are offended by Western dress, and they can't eat the food," said Ashfaq Parkar, one of more than 100 event organizers and volunteers from the local Islamic Circle. "This allows all families to come out and enjoy the day and not worry about that sort of thing."

Parkar said organizers held the event on a Friday because it is a holy day for Muslims. He added that halal food, which he likened to kosher for Jewish people, and vendors selling everything from Islamic music to Islamic clothing made the day more attractive to families. In addition to the rides and attractions offered at the park, families also were called on to be charitable.

"Give your cash, write a check, go to the ATM, and let people know that what they see in the media is not what Muslims are about," Imam Zaid Shakir told a crowd of hundreds gathered for the sermon as they filled boxes with donations for victims of Hurricane Katrina. "Let people see what we can do."

Khalifa was one of many who anxiously anticipated the closing of prayers and the opening of Kingda Ka. She eagerly awaited her chance to go from zero to 128 m.p.h. in 3.5 seconds. She did not have long to wait. The lines were short, and moved quickly. And as she sat in the front car with her friend, 13-year-old Hind Kasem, she secured her hijab by tucking the black head scarf into the collar of her shirt. She did not want a repeat of what happened last year on the Nitro roller coaster.

"I didn't tighten it, and it blew up over my head," she said, giggling.

He was not getting on as many rides as he would have liked, but Ahmed Elgabroni was just as giddy about being at the amusement park. He, his mother, his aunt, two sisters and a brother all made the trip yesterday from Jersey City.

"They said I was too short," the 12-year-old said, sounding disappointed about being a couple of inches shy of the 54-inch-height requirement to ride most of the park's 13 roller coasters. "But that's OK. I'm going to get on something."

Contact staff writer Toni Callas at 856-779-3912 or tcallas@phillynews.com.

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